Pig Hunt

Pig Hunt (2008) movie poster

(2008) director James Isaac
viewed: 04/28/11

This horror film was produced locally, featuring Les Claypool in a bit part in the film and more significantly on the soundtrack.  I think that’s why I queued it up.  I’m usually up for a horror film.  It’s kind of like comfort food.

Pig Hunt, if you can guess, is about a pig hunt.  Four friends and one friend’s girlfriend pile into a van to drive up from San Francisco to Boonville to hunt wild pigs.  There is a monster wild pig, a Hogzilla, a 3000 lb beast, mutated, deadly.  But actually the monster is an odd throwback to the days when physically crafted monsters held the screen as opposed to today’s more common digitized beasts.  But also it’s a throwback to when those crafted creatures were held back to the very end, only to be exposed at the very end, for suspense partially and partially because they didn’t traditionally have a monster who could hold the screen the whole time.

The rest of the film is made up of a California-based Deliverance (1972) sort of thing featuring hillbilly killers and a strange naked girl hippie cult.  Which actually makes for a reasonably good time, actually.

The worst thing about this movie is the general characterizations.  The characters are a poorly sketched lot, none of whom seem like they would be hanging out with the others.  And the main character, with his hottie Asian girlfriend, is supposed to have come from the Boonville backwoods.  I don’t know.  It’s all freakin’ ridiculous.

But as lame as the construct is, the bizarreness eventually starts rolling along.  And it’s more absurd turns almost make up for its weak qualities.  Almost, that is.

Waste Land

Waste Land (2010) movie poster

(2010)  director Lucy Walker, João Jardim, Karen Harley
viewed: 04/24/11

Nominated for Best Documentary at this years Academy Awards, Waste Land sounded like an interesting film.  Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, after achieving success in the United States and Europe, devised a project that would contribute back to the poor of his home country, a world in which he himself had grown up.  He goes to Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s largest garbage dump and seeks to create portraits of the garbage pickers out of the recyclable materials that they pick from the trash, employing them in the process.

He then photographs these huge constructed images and turns out huge prints that tour at major art museums and are sold at auction, passing the money (or some portion of it) back to the garbage pickers and their union, giving them funding but also exposure, drawing attention to their lives.

It’s interesting, and certainly some of the garbage pickers are charming, inspiring characters.  What Muniz did was generous and meaningful, helping people as he has.  Director Lucy Walker follows him through the creation of the project, down into the massive, overwhelming dump, through the art project and the exhibitions.  And the film has moments of hope and joy.

But it’s not the best documentary in the world.  Not even the best one that had been up for Best Documentary.  But it’s vantage on the marginalized poor, especially with its altruistic, artistic aspect and glimmering “feel good” qualities, it’s easy to see how it might connect with people.  But it’s not “great”, though it’s interesting.  I’m also not so sure about the art that Muniz creates.  It’s a nice project but I would say it’s not great art.  Maybe that’s the same with the film.

Skyline

Skyline (2010) movie poster

(2010) directors Colin Strause, Greg Strause
viewed: 04/23/11

In an increasingly crowded market of alien invasion genre films, Skyline is not likely to stand out.  It’s primary visionary image is of humans being sucked up into a giant spaceship, reckoning of a biblical call to the end of days.  Also, there are giant, hard-to-describe aliens who seem to have come to Earth for brains.

Made by Colin and Greg Strause (“the Brothers Strause”) who begot AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem (2007), Skyline is an invasion film with a mixture of small scale and large scale.  On the small scale, the story follows a small group of friends, meeting up in a penthouse in Los Angeles in an oddly unpopulated building.  This isn’t one of those stories that tries to show the breadth of  humanity battling this massive invasion, but the specific isolated experience of a small group.  On the large scale, it’s Los Angeles, giant aliens, and biblical-scale doom.

Really the film is pretty awful, but not awful in a particularly enjoyable way.  I LIKE bad science fiction.  But this film is a failure without much in the way of ironic joy.

The most problematic thing for me was the base concept.  It’s Los Angeles, California, the second most populated city in the United States, but for this small group of friends, it’s a ghost town.  There is no logic to why they would be the only ones left when the aliens come and summon people into being pulled toward their human vacuum.  And then what do these people do when the shit starts hitting the fan?  Do they turn on the TV?  Do they search the internet?  What’s the first thing you would do if you looked outside and saw spaceships and feared for your life?

Do you know what these guys do?  Plan to get to the marina to get on a boat and off-shore. ??????

One thing I usually like in science fiction films or maybe any genre film or story is that I like not being given some entire back-story explanation about what is going on.  I like the mystery, the lack of knowing.  And to this film’s credit, it’s not exactly spelled out what is going on.  But by the end of the film, when it’s become clear that these creatures use human brains and nervous systems somehow for more than food, and then when the “hero” turns into a big “good” monster…to protect his pregnant girlfriend, the lack of knowledge moved into a lack of even having a clue as to what was supposed to be happening.

While it’s not fair to compare it with District 9 (2009), the ending with the hero morphed into a quasi-alien reckons of it.  There is probably a myriad of alien-invasion films that one could contrast it with.  Maybe there is an interesting theme to be gleaned from these recent series of alien invasion films, but I haven’t grasped it yet.  Skyline, despite one or two impressive visuals, is a weak, faulty effort, a minor blip on the sci-fi screen.

Marwencol

Marwencol (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Jeff Malmberg
viewed: 04/19/11

The real life that the documentary Marwencol details is compelling and fascinating.  In 2000, after leaving a local bar Mark Hogancamp, then 38, was attacked and brutally beaten by a group of five men.  Hogancamp suffered brain damage after this unprovoked attack and it required months upon months and years and years to recover.

Before the attack, Hogancamp was a bit of a drunk with a not particularly notable life.  But in his recovery, having no memory of himself or his life, he found himself in a frightening world where nothing was familiar or the same and he lived in fear of another attack.

In a somewhat random selection of hobbies, he began collecting, crafting and creating dolls for a fictional WWII-era town which he photographed the figures, developed narratives for the characters, and worked through his complex world of loves, pain, brutality, and fantasy as a form of therapy.  Initially, he took to the hobby as a way of working with his hands, which shook too much for him to draw (which some shots of earlier diaries seem to suggest he did well).  Initially physiological, his hobby evolved into his entire town, Marwencol.

Hogancamp is a classic outsider artist.  His doll figures are crafted with intensive detail and his photographs, the telling of an evolving, sprawling narrative, featuring his attackers as the Nazi villains.

His story is fascinating and his art is quite compelling, especially in the context of his life-changing experience and how it informs what he creates.  Part of the beauty of his art is how everything is created through his personal need and narrative, not created as “art”.

Part of the story that the film covers is the “discovery” of Hogancamp by an artist who lives nearby and Hogancamp’s resultant exposure in an art magazine.  All of this leads to an art show in New York of his work (and probably this film itself).  And part of the question that the film hints at is “What will become of his art when it becomes ‘art’?” When his work might become more self-conscious or aware once he’s no longer merely producing it for himself.

But really, the most fascinating thing is Hogancamp’s story itself, his art, or if you will, his creations.  For Hogancamp, his creations were a personal dialog, a therapeutic and specific outlet for his complex self-examination.  From the outside, it’s clearly art in the sense that it’s an amazing crafted work and it could be placed in context in an art gallery or museum.

The film is functional itself.  Documentaries can sometimes succeed despite themselves when the subject matter is strong and compelling.  As long as the documentarian doesn’t “screw it up”, when you have a story like Hogancamp’s, you’ve got something well worth exploring.  And through the film, I was really drawn in.  But as the film has sat with me for a few days, I began to feel that the film didn’t manage to make much more of the story, either by finding something more profound or suggesting something beyond its core story.

The question about what happens to Hogancamp after his art show is left unanswered.  If there was a question of how healthy it is to make “an artist” out of him, to commercialize his work or his story, the film certainly doesn’t turn that question on itself.  I feel, as intriguing as it was, I wanted a bit more.  And really it’s not such a knock at the film but more a comment on how fascinating I found the whole of Hogancamp’s real and fictive world.  Maybe there will be a book written or some other telling that perhaps reaches deeper.  It’s a sad story, though one with elements of hope and the strangeness and weird beauty of some human souls.

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Joseph Kosinski
viewed: 04/15/11

I had definitely wanted to see Tron: Legacy in its element, which would have been last summer in digital 3-D on an IMAX screen.  Given the poor reviews and trade-offs and what-have-you’s, I didn’t make it out for it in its best environment.  I heard that it was at least visually stunning on the massive screen with the 3-D glasses on your nose.   But I waited for DVD and ended up watching it with both Clara and Felix, knowing it would be more of Felix’s cup of tea than Clara’s.  And you know, I have minor regrets.

The film’s strength is in its visual design.  And having seen it in the big and digitally enhanced would definitely have lifted it.  The visuals are indeed still impressive, even on DVD, without the 3-D, on a much smaller scale.  And it’s the cool, neon and black-light sci-fi aesthetics that offer the most pleasure.

The original Tron, released in 1982, was a forward-thinking, though not quite timely science fiction adventure that went on to find a place in the cult hearts of some.  I remember seeing it, in part because I saw it in Bakersfield, CA in an old cinema (the first time I ever set foot in a balcony), I remember even more the video game that promoted it (because it was more popular than the film itself, I think).  But I also remember, even at the time, having mixed feelings of appreciation and disdain for its visual aesthetics and sci-fi world.  In other words, I wasn’t in the cult fan camp, but I was familiar, not judgmental, but willing with this sequel, 28 years in the making.

The new film picks up a few years where the 1982 Tron left off.  It starts in 1989, seven years after the end of the original, with Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn telling his seven year old son about this wild world of “The Grid” (the interior world of computers in which programs are represented by figures of their creators), and then disappears.  The film flashes forward to the present in which the younger Flynn gets sucked into The Grid and winds up realizing that his father hadn’t meant to abandon him at all.

Unfortunately, the elder Flynn’s program doppelganger in The Grid, Clu (who is a special effects de-aged version of Bridges to make him look circa 1989) has gone evil and has trapped the elder Flynn while trying to get hold of his “disk” (the neon disk that attaches to each Grid person’s back but can also be used for disk fighting), which will allow him to escape the Grid into the other realm.  The story includes the discovery of life forms that are came into being in The Grid that Clu tried to destroy via genocide.

It’s a lot of story.  Clara was particularly restless through much of it, though she said she liked it.  She then said that she didn’t understand it either.  Felix was pretty into it.

For me, the visual design was quite impressive.  A mixture of retro future and future future, amped up with Industrial Light and Magic’s top of the line visual effects.  The story doesn’t really connect, nor do the characters, so all the bigness of the adventure tends to fall behind the slickness of the presentation.

The most bizarre thing about the film is the virtual 1989 Jeff Bridges.  Digital effects have been used in so many ways to effect so many illusion from explosions to fantastical creatures to entire worlds, but here, taking a living actor and taking 20 years off of his face, particularly in contrast to his bearded, scraggly present day face playing opposite himself, seems one of the most uncanny of all digital effects.  It’s not seamless.  There is an eerie stiffness to Clu’s visage (as well as the early scenes of Bridges in the earliest scenes where he’s also digitally altered).  But it’s a surreal thing, which truly breaks some weird unwritten law of possibility.

Not to say it hasn’t happened before in lesser ways (from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return in Terminator Salvation (2009) to the re-animating of dead celebrities in television commercials), but the prominence of Bridges younger face and primary role as central villain is much larger and more foregrounded.  It plays into the whole of the Hollywood movie star image, youth and beauty, those always diminishing resources, now are partly recoverable through digitized enhancement.  Part of the way that the film-makers were able to achieve this was because they have lots of images of Bridges to work with from the period in which he is taken back to because he was making movies then as now.  He was already “captured” in his youth, on film.

There is probably enough for a mini dissertation regarding this technique alone.  And much like an avatar via
Avatar (2009), it’s doubtless that this is merely the beginning of an era in which the virtual actor, the virtual presentation of an actor becomes less an anomaly.

The other weird thing for me in this film, in which I do indeed praise the design, is the weird 1980’s-ish retro qualities of the design.  I mean, it is picking up the design elements of the original 1982 film, which was reaching to be futuristic but winds up looking very 1980’s.  The designers have taken the weird black and muted neon of the original and cleaned them up with modern effects and aesthetics and made something very slick while still retro.  But it’s hard not to look at the scene in the club as something as painfully uncool as The Matrix Revolutions (2003).  The Matrix (1999) itself sort of took some of the Tron concepts beyond their ideas, but this vision of hipsters lounging and then fighting to the motorcycle-helmeted deejays playing Daft Punk (who did the soundtrack and may well have been in the motorcycle helmets for all I know) was just hilariously goofy.

I suppose it’s all a geek fantasy (or is supposed to be).  But not much of it makes sense when you start to think about it.  Like why do computer programs play games to the death and watch these games like a black-lit Roman arena?  Are programs just like us?  Bored and needing entertainment?  What would that suggest about artificial intelligence then?

In films like this, it’s usually good not to quibble over such details, but there is a lot here to pore over in a film about the interior world of technology, delivered by the brightest and best of current film-making technologies and the technologists who lovingly created it.  It’s a tech fantasy for techies by techies.  And it’s very slick and sort of cool.  But it’s also a mediocre movie.  And it would have doubtlessly been more satisfying on the big screen.

Fish Tank

Fish Tank (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Andrea Arnold
viewed: 04/09/11

Raved about in the press and compared to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) or the work of British film-maker Ken Loach, Fish Tank is a snatch of contemporary English gritty realism.  Starring Katie Jarvis, previously a non-actor who was “discovered” on the train platform in Tilbury where the film is set, director Andrea Arnold’s film has that working class London area flavor, neither idealized nor vitrified, a balance of showing the lives of the poor in estate housing in England’s center.

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a single Ken Loach film, so I don’t know how it compares with his work.  But I am familiar with the English films and television shows that seem to have a more open eye to all strata of English life and depicting it through the social realism lens.  I’ve actually always admired this aspect of British cinema and entertainment that there seems to be a better self-awareness or a broader self-awareness of the breadth of England’s society.  But these types of films can be real downers too.

Fish Tank is neither pure downer nor pure upper.  The life of 15 year old Mia (Jarvis) who lives in a housing estate with her mother and younger sister in significant poverty.  Her mom is a lush, more a peer than an adult, who hooks up with hunk Michael Fassbender, one of the few people to show Mia some genuine attention.  Fassbender is a hunk, and he’s charming too.  Mia’s hopes for becoming a hip-hop dancer are somewhere between pathetic and pipe-dream, and while the worst things that happen to her don’t come close to how exploitatively bad as the could be, the ending is a mixture of hope and pessimism.

I have to say that I wasn’t as taken with Fish Tank as I was anticipating.  It’s a good film and well worth seeing.  Given some of the reviews that I’d read and the fact that it got a Criterion Collection release made me anticipate something perhaps more transcendent.  Actually, what was weird was how the DVD was made full-screen rather than letter box, which seems like a weird choice.  I read somewhere that the choice was perhaps to further the claustrophobia of Mia’s life or to make the film more “low-fi”, like an old VHS video.  I have no idea.  But it was unusual.  Maybe there is some aspect of it being called “Fish Tank” in it, like looking in at a little, constrained world in which the poor creatures flit around fruitlessly, living but not living free, never with any chance of escape.

Source Code

Source Code (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Duncan Jones
viewed: 04/07/11 at Sundance Kabuki Cinema, SF, CA

Source Code is a science fiction thriller quite akin to a Twilight Zone episode.  The film opens with Jake Gyllenhaal on a commuter train heading for downtown Chicago.  Across the from him sits the cheery, pretty Michelle Monaghan, who talks to him like she knows him.  Only he doesn’t know who he is, who she is, where he is, or what the heck is going on.   As the train hurtles forward, his strange behavior and surreal sense of reality set of warning signals, but nothing prepares him for what happens next.  The train explodes.  Everyone dies.

But that’s only the first eight minutes.

Next thing he knows, he is in a chamber, isolated, with a Vera Farmiga, dressed in military dress clothes talking to him through a screen.  He is confused.  Says he was in Afghanistan with his troops, doesn’t know what’s happening.  She soothes him with some coded messages and tells him that his mission is to head back into that previous eight minutes to find the bomb and the bomber and stop the slaughter of millions.

Frankly, the less you know about the story the better.  And I’ll tell you, I actually thought the film was pretty good.  Director Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son and director of Moon, another science fiction film that focused on aspects of isolation and alienation, works up a pretty solid piece of entertainment here.  Like I said, I enjoyed it.  Will everyone?  I don’t know.  The looping sort of time travel narrative has been utilized before, perhaps utilized a lot.  But the film is fairly lean and focused and keeps rolling through.

If the film sounds interesting to you, you can stop here and make a plan to see it.  I don’t want to spoil anything for you in the plot twists and surprises that make for the film’s intellectual, puzzle-like mystery.  Some have compared it to Inception (2010), with it’s twisty head-trippy convolutions.

But the film has some weaknesses.  What turns out to be the villain and the villain’s reasons for doing what he’s doing are really lamely conceived.  All that questioning, “who is the bomber?” and “why?” is pretty disappointing.  And then while the film unreels the mystery of Gyllenhaal’s reality, “is he dead?”, “is he alive?” it tries to split off into further contemplations of reality, further twists, and eventually an ending that comes a few twists later than you’d hope.

And finally, this is a spoiler alert here, but I was kind of disappointed that when we finally saw Gyllenhaal’s “reality” self that he still maintained his cute face and nicely-groomed two day stubble, looking pretty and all (even though he’s lacking the lower part of his body).  I really kind of wanted him to be just a brain stem or something more out there or gruesome, something more shocking or bizarre.  Not warm and kissable.  But that’s just me.

Maybe I have a weird idea of what a good plot twist might be.

Cyrus

Cyrus (2010) movie poster

(2010) directors Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
viewed: 04/02/11

Mumblecore goes mainstream.  So to speak.

Or maybe literally.  I don’t know.

Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass are significant figures of the mumblecore movement with their films The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008), the latter of which being the only mumblecore film that I can lay claim to having seen.  But when your producers are Ridley and Tony Scott, your film is released by Fox Searchlight and you have actual movie stars in your film (John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, and Jonah Hill) and your budget is in the millions, by definition, you are no longer making a mumblecore movie.

Mumblecore has been defined by its low budgets and no name actors, among other things.  What the Duplass brothers do bring from the mumblecore movement is aesthetic and content, focussing on interpersonal relationships, a low-fi look and feel, and a sense of comic realism.

Cyrus is the story of a divorced man (Reilly) whose life is in a rut, until his ex-wife (Keener) talks him into a party where he drunkenly tries to connect with women.  Despite some major swings and misses, he hooks up with an attractive woman (Tomei), who genuinely likes and connects with him.  And suddenly, life is good.  Until he finds out that she has an adult son named Cyrus (Hill), who has a very strange relationship with his mother, and who dons the role of friendship while actually trying to sabotage Reilly’s relationship.

There are aspects of the film where it feels like it could verge into the territory of the shocking and more blatantly outrageous aspects of humor, a more common type of Hollywood comedy, where two characters play against each other in increasingly over-the-top acts of destruction.  And there is enough of that hanging in there, that keeps the film feeling off-kilter enough, that you are not quite sure how it will turn out.  But maybe that is the difference in a mumblecore film.  Maybe reaching into the realms of the outlandish and hysterical is not really a card that ever gets played.  And maybe it’s only hanging there in the background because we’ve grown to expect that kind of comic nonsense.

The film is more grounded in the naturalistic, and even with a sort of unpronounced incestuous angle to the story, the film is much more about the humanistic qualities of the characters.  Reilly is very good in his role (as he typically is).  Tomei is also good as the oddball mom.  And Hill, who I don’t usually care for, certainly puts in one of his better performances.

In the end, though, avoiding dramatic and comedic histrionics, the film stays at a meandering norm, engaging and involving, but never really reaching to be more.  The camerawork is typically low-key and while there is a bigger budget in hand, the film still has this very low-end feel to it, never attempting to be aesthetically brilliant.  It’s not a bad film, but it doesn’t really come across as compelling either.

In the meantime, there are other mumblecore films that I’ve been meaning to see, so maybe I just need to check out some others.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Bowers
viewed: 04/02/11 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

A follow-up to last year’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010), Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules is an adaptation of the second book in the series of cartoon-infused stories of the trials and tribulations of Greg Heffley, the self-proclaimed “wimpy kid” protagonist.  The books are actually pretty fun, the mixture of cartoons and “hand-written” script inflecting itself on the stories, making for a decent, age-appropriate read.  That age is roughly 8-9 years old, possibly a bit older, though the stories are that of the hell that is middle school, not elementary

As in the first film, turning the stories into a live-action production, the characters’ behavior seems more annoying, callow, and unoriginal.  The whole shebang is much more of television-level kid entertainment.  The book experience, with the near stick-figure cartoons really winds up having more of a personality than the live action version of the characters.

That’s not to say that it’s all bad.  Rodrick, Greg’s older brother and tormentor is played by Devon Bostick (as in the original), and he’s pretty good.  Robert Capron plays Greg’s sweet, clueless buddy Rowley with some reasonable charm.  And director David Bowers, who directed the very fun Flushed Away (2006) and the passable Astro Boy (2009) offers a mild upgrade from the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid director Thor Freudenthal.  As for Greg himself, Zachary Gordon is fine.  As I’ve noted, it floats between a narcissistic, self-absorbed characterization that comes off better in the books, varying between trying to be a more fully rounded children’s film.

Felix seemed more interested in it before we saw it, smiled and laughed through much of it, and then showed ambivalence afterward.  That may well indeed be the proper and common response to the average movie of today.

Tales from Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea (2006) movie poster

(2006) director Gorō Miyazaki
viewed: 04/01/11

Great idea? Master Japanese animation film-maker Hayao Miyazaki to take on the “Earthsea” saga of science fiction/fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin.

Much lesser idea? Son of Hayao Miyazaki, Gorō Miyazaki, not an experienced film-maker to adapt some of the later “Earthsea” stories of Le Guin, through his father’s production company, Studio Ghibli.

Unfortunately, Tales from Earthsea is the latter.  And while it’s not a disaster of a film by any means, it does feel like a painfully squandered opportunity.

When I was 13, I read Le Guin’s “Earthsea Trilogy” (as it was at that point) over the summer and really enjoyed them.  I’ve never been a pure science fiction nor fantasy aficionado, though I’ve dabbled over the years.  I couldn’t recall much of the story if you asked me today, but I recalled liking it.  I rank Hayao Miyazaki among the greatest animators of all time, some of his films among my favorite cinema period.  So, I loved the idea of Miyazaki tackling such material, especially since he was drawn to it.

But the reality is that Miyazaki wanted to do a film of The Wizard of Earthsea or something back in the 1980’s.  At that point, Le Guin refused, Miyazaki not by that time established as he would later be.  But when she finally relented to have her books adapted, the work was done by Miyazaki’s son, who had spent most of his career not in his father’s shadow, working in different fields and media.

The story is a complex fantasy featuring wizards, dragons, and personal responsibilities, dramatic, complex, apparently re-working much of Le Guin’s work into something that she liked OK but disowned as her own.   And that’s really it.  It’s not a bad film.  I watched it with the kids and they liked it pretty well, but it’s not a great one by any means.  One expects more from Studio Ghibli and presumably expects more from Le Guin.

It’s only too bad because one can imagine what might have been.  It’s been suggested that Ponyo (2008) will be the elder Miyazaki’s final feature film, and doubtlessly, he can retire and rest well upon his creative laurels.  And Ponyo, quite frankly, is a wonderful movie, a much greater film by far than Tales from Earthsea.  But Tales from Earthsea is not a bad film, yet not a great film most assuredly.